Workshopping the Future

 Most of the pieces I’ve written for the Peace Corps Mexico internal newsletter The Piñata have been posts I’d already tapped out or had in mind for this blog. This time it’s reversed; I’ve changed all acronyms to words and explained where I think explaining was merited, but you folks are smart, you’ll get a long.

An ex-volunteer, between his Close of Service in November and his move to the Philippines for Peace Corps Response this past May, made a short tour of Mexico, and when he came by Jalpan, he left me a book, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything from December of last year. Peace Corps Volunteers being what they are, I imagine some of you have read Klein and even her new work. But for everyone who hasn’t, I’ll give you the briefest summary and then we’ll get onto why it’s important.

Because it changes everything?

Because it changes everything?

As a species, we’ve spent the forty years we’ve known about the problem doing nothing; neither Río nor any later conference has made any real gains, and we’re maybe less than a decade out from releasing enough carbon to blow past 2C of warming into an all-the-more-apocalyptic future.[1] Our large multinational fossil fuel companies have, right now, reported reserves that, if extracted and burned, would easily bring us to 3 or 4C of warming.[2] Not only that, but the danger climate change presents isn’t imminent so much as it’s already here, and more than a few of us in Mexico have observed firsthand variations in climate that deviate from millennia of established patterns.

I assume we're all past this point if we're not experts

I assume we’re all past this

The causes we’re mostly familiar with. Dirty electricity production is foremost, followed by the burning of fossil fuel for transport, both personal and commercial, especially the diesel and gasoline used to power the ships and planes and trucks on which global trade depends. And industrialized agriculture, which has huge carbon outlays not just for shipping and the running of equipment and facilities but in the extraction and production of mineral fertilizers, all alongside the massive pollution and environmental destruction caused by runoff and the overuse of herb- and pesticides. Others, of course, but here you have the big three: power, transport (shipping), agriculture.

Naomi Klein’s solution to this disaster is appropriately drastic. She wants to overthrow the global capitalist system, not by violence but by mass democratic action. She wants to derail the neoliberal ‘Washington Consensus’ that has dominated global economics since the late 1980s and which, for a time, was the leading philosophy in development as well.

What has any of that got to do with us? Everything. Not in the overthrowing—it’s not within the ambit of a Peace Corps volunteer. We come in when Klein imagines the world afterwards.

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Escape

I’m helping to copy edit the travel book of a friend of mine in Istanbul. He just turned in his second draft, and I’ve been looking at it for the last hour. It’s making me think that it’s finally time to talk about the ten days I spent in that city and all the thoughts his book brings up besides.

He is dog?

In all his glory

My best woman friend from college, Alex, her Peace Corps application languished a few months too long, so she applied to Teachers in Turkey and they snapped her up inside a week. I went out there and did nothing like I was supposed to. I spent one morning in Sultanahment and the bazaars and only because she had a lesson to teach that day. All the rest of my time passed in Kadikoy and the other parts of the Asian side, meeting her friends, attending dinner parties, drinking on the Bosporus.

But for the language, Istanbul would be my ideal city. Massive, the cultural and political heart of its entire country, cosmopolitan and polyglot, gleaming on the European side, dripping with history, and bohemian to the east, affordable and chockablock with cafés and hookahs and smart young expats who’ve escaped the work culture of the States and gone abroad to write and teach and make art and play music. A city torn by dissent, wracked by protests over the KDP and Kobane at the time and still possessed by the warmth and hospitality that make Mexico so endearing.

Alex and Ernie and Anna and Jari and Valentin and Sadaf and Maedeh are living the kind of life that I wish I were brave enough or unbeholden enough to my folks to lead.

As long as nobody's singing an impromptu Marseillaise

It’s better, on the whole, than it looks right here.

Unafraid to cut ties with the assembly line shuttling from high school into college into debt into work into the grave. Which is more or less the thesis of Ernie’s book.

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Yo No Sé Qué

I went to visit Ben Weiss a couple of weekends ago.[1] It’s not the first time I’ve gotten the feeling I like another volunteer’s digs more than my own.

Case in picture

Case in picture

Ben lives in San José de Gracia outside of Aguascalientes, home of the (very, it turns out) locally famous Cristo Roto, a Statue of the Crucifixion they dropped during construction. Apparently it came alive to tell the townsfolk not to fix it. It’s now a strobe-lit tourist-trap.

The ride from the city skirts past the benighted Pabellón (sorry Kyle) and then climbs up into the foothills of the Sierra Fría until it arrives at a small plateau on which is a pueblo very much like the one in which I live. It’s not as old and it has wide avenues instead of Jalpan’s cramped colonial streets and alleys, but it’s close enough the same.

Ben pays less than me for a house that’s three times as large on the first floor and comes with a second and a yard. Housing prices have skyrocketed since Jalpan got provisional approval as a Pueblo Mágico.[2]. Ni modo, but there’s thing one. Thing two is that Ben has a family. Not the host family—I’ve seen his now, and as nice as his abuelos are, I’d take my own. No, Ben has made a family.

After a kind of trial period, he’s settled down into a comfortable domesticity with his Mexican girlfriend Mara, a biologist who does freelance work from her own small consultoría. A family up the road from him has eight kids and money for not quite that many, so the youngest two sell donuts around town every morning. I found this out when they rang the bell at seven and peeked in to see me pretending to sleep on the couch. He sent them whispering off, and when I was up to see them on their return at nine, I wished he hadn’t.

Karla, who’s nine, and Jonathan, who looks like he’s around there, are the two cutest kids I’ve ever seen. Here, there, anywhere, these are them.

Seriously they're real cute

These kids man, the photos don’t do them justice

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(In)efficiency

I can’t know for sure what the first thing any American notices about Mexico is, but inefficiency has to be in the top ten.

I’ve commented on Mexican life’s slowish pace, and the possible tradeoffs there might be between happiness and the tightest bottom line. I’m going to try to tie a few of those ideas together in this post.

When it comes to the bathroom, I’m a morning person. None of this showering at night business or running off to class or work with a head dunked in a sink. For better or worse, a trip to the facilities has been part of my start-up routine at every office job I’ve ever worked. There are the necessities to take care of, but it’s also a brief window to read, do the LA Times crossword, center myself after the commute and get ready for the day. A spiritual time.

And Snapchats to my high school buddies

This means home to me

So it’s jarring that every day when I arrive, the young woman who cleans our office is camped out in the men’s john. It serves as a janitorial closet, a dishwashing station, and general female hangout during the course of the morning. The women’s is too small to accommodate any of the things we store in there and we can’t switch sides because the men’s has a urinal. It’s doubly troubling, because as I’ve mentioned, my diet right now is 90% black beans and coffee.

Lola (her name is Lola, short for Lolita short for Dolores) opens the building in the morning, and depending on the day does maybe ¼ of her cleaning before the staff arrives. Sometime last February, Janessa and I were working on a project that seemed urgent at the time, and we got up four or five times in the course of a half-hour so Lola could wipe down our desks, sweep behind them, and then mop after sweeping.[1] Newly adapted to life here, we started to grumble around the fourth interruption—in the States, maintenance is before or after work, in the States, employees are left to be productive; you wouldn’t find a janitor strolling into a corner office at 10am and breaking up a conference call—on and on like that.

It’s true, Lola disrupts office work. Unavoidable fact. We’d all get more done if she cleaned while we aren’t here. If Janessa and I had left service way back when, I imagine that would have been our takeaway. But now it’s not, not even close.

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All Happy Families

I’m not close to my folks, not the way other people seem to be.

I'm not heartless though

I’m not heartless though

We moved from Nashville to Shanghai when I was six, and I saw my extended family during home-leave, the month of summer General Motors gave us to tour the US. I’d see Mom’s people in New Braunfels in Texas for a week and then we’d visit one or another branch of Dad’s side, in Oregon or Washington or down in New Orleans.

My mother’s father died when she was seventeen, and her mother passed during my last summer in China. We didn’t go back to Texas much after that. My father’s parents started ailing soon after, and what I saw of his brothers and their kids depended on who was caretaking at the time. I’d go years between seeing a given set of cousins, and there’s a group of Texans I haven’t laid eyes on in a decade.

When I went away to college, I took a perverse pride in how emotionally independent I was from my folks. Other kids would call home daily or weekly for advice and support while I might go months between phone calls. My parents had helped me to grow up an independent kid, and I thought it was all advantage at the time, that I was making my way on my own and better for it. That was a fiction and an obvious one—I wasn’t paying my own way, and there are mistakes I made in college they could have helped me to head off.

Even now, my folks are in China and I have less contact with them than, I think, any other volunteer has with theirs. Schedules and time zones keep us from Skyping, but I try to write more and make sure they follow the blog so at least they’ll have that bare-minimum of information. All the same, I don’t see family in the way quite the same way as my friends and fellow-volunteers, can’t imagine planning my future based on their geography, tethering myself to Nashville where they’ll retire.

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Thanksgiving

I’m reading The Labyrinth of Solitude and I’m so wrapped up in holding the text steady that I don’t notice when the bus blows past El Lobo. We’re a half mile down the road by the time I stagger to the front and explain in panicked Spanish that I meant to get off, “You know, apenas,” just now. My permanent affect in Spanish is contrition, and I keep apologizing to the driver as I try to mime that he needs to stop the bus. I mumble disculpe and perdóname to sleeping Mexicans on my oh-so-long trip to the back to grab my pack. Off the bus, I huck my gear to the ground and try to take stock. I am immediately covered in ants. I curse and giggle and try to shimmy them down and out of my jeans. I sling all forty pounds of prep onto my back and start down the road towards Lobo.

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I am a Peace Corps Volunteer working in the stubby mountains of Mexico’s eastern Sierra Madre, and I am about to celebrate Thanksgiving. I live in Jalpan, the de facto capital of the region, and I’m traveling up into the hills to stay with the two other volunteers that the Peace Corps placed out here. James is tall, gangly, and fiercely blonde. He’s Michigan Dutch, Cortez reincarnate in the way he enchants the dusty campo girls. Danielle is a small and perpetually hungry environmental educator out of New York State. They both live in the mero campo, the real country, in pueblos that Jalpan dwarfs, far away from the Internet and bus-lines that keep me pretty well in touch with the world outside.

As I walk up to the misty intersection that leaves the highway and climbs into the mountains, I realize that—God knows why—I’ve worn a cardigan. Between it and my camera, I’ll look like what the grizzled men in this leg of the Sierra refer to as a mano caída, a fallen hand, letting their wrists go limp as they say it. Transit from here to where my friends live goes by way of improvised taxis and converted pickups, and I try to look at home as I sidle up to the group of drivers.

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“Who’s going to Río Verdito?” I ask. One of them raises his hand. “Cuanto?

Eighty pesos,” he says, about six-fifty US.

“No manches,” I reply, don’t mess around. He laughs. “I live here,” I say, and light a cigarette for effect.

“Not right here”

“Down the road.” He laughs again. “Quince,” I say. Fifteen, less than a dollar.

“Then you’ll have to wait.” I pass him a cigarette and we talk about where he’s worked in the States. He’s been to pick apples near where I used to live in Michigan, but we don’t know any of the same people. One of those things. When a critical mass of travelers builds up and gets into his truck, he waves me towards the cab, but I beg off and sling my stuff into the bed. The ride is gorgeous and I’d rather not have to navigate small talk.

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We climb up into the hills while the fog lifts and peaks and pastures dance into view. It’s a cut-rate Bavaria without the more impressive Alps, long narrow valleys blending into terraced farmland spotted with goats and mongrel zebu cattle. We make it to James’ pueblo without incident, and I’m not sure if I’m excited or afraid. We’ve got a turkey, but it’s not, you know, dead yet. Peace Corps is full of this kind of experience—things you want to say you’ve done but which you’re not so sure you want to do. James’ cabin clings to the hillside far up the valley wall, and I poke around for telltale feathers as I hike the muddy cow-path to his door. His kitchen is always unlocked and when I push inside, he’s just taking a pot of water off for coffee.

We do the slap-and-a-fist bump that passes for a handshake out here. “So uh, where is she?” I ask.

“Penelope? I had to do her yesterday. Didn’t want to lead her on.”

“Was she a hassle?”

“No, sweet bird. Calmer than I thought she’d be when I carried her over in the corn sack.”

“I should’ve told you I was gonna write about it.”

“You want to see her? She’s outside.”

James is an engineer, but he spent most of his time between college and the Peace Corps on organic farms, and him also being from Michigan, it’s not his first time to a turkey shoot.

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“You use that same handle-less abomination on her?” He only has one knife.

“Yea. Had it so sharp it almost scared me. She went quiet.” He nods over the edge of his porch and I look down to see bloodstains and a mass of feathers in the trees below. “There’d be more down there, but chickens are notorious cannibals,” he says, and indicates the crowd that’s turned out to bawk at us. I look into the pot, and she’s tiny, just enough for four, with little black hairs clinging to the gaping pores where feathers used to be.

“Gross, man,” I say, prodding the little craters.

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“Yea. Butterballs, the commercially grown ones, they’re bred to be pluckable. Ugly, all bald and patchy.”

Night’s closing in, so we take the coffee and huddle into his living room to talk. James and I have the best non-native Spanish of our class of volunteers, but we both find it difficult to connect emotionally outside of English, so we talk about the Mitten State for hours when we’re together. It’s not long before we have to bundle up, shaking spiders out of blankets and knit ponchos. It’s as cold as it ever gets up here, not less than thirty five degrees. But Mexico is all poured concrete, and the walls welcome the cold in, making sure that if it’s chilly outside, it’s just as bad in here.

At daybreak, the clouds are gone and the temperature shoots up as we hitchhike to Agua Zarca, where our other volunteer Danielle lives. We catch a ride straight off, and for all that I rip the ashtray out of the car door trying to pull it closed, the guy seems happy for company. He drops us just outside of Danielle’s place, some thirty minutes down the road. When we step out, she calls down from her balcony that there’s no running water, hasn’t been all morning. James and I look at each other. Neither of us has showered much since the cold rolled in, and we’re both pouring sweat now. “Ni modo,” he says, something like ‘Nor a way,’ the national anthem of amiable resignation.

Danielle has to run out to pick up our fourth, Janessa, the other volunteer from down where I live. James visits the neighbors to see if they’ve got water while I unload pie supplies from my backpack. It turns out they have got some, in a rain cistern, and he begins the first of dozens of runs for water, carrying it back in six-liter plastic bottles and dumping it into tubs. Between his frame and the chore, he looks like a broomstick from the Sorceror’s Apprentice scene in Fantasia.

I busy myself with the pies. Danielle hasn’t got bowls, so I make dough in the massive 12-inch cake pans I’ve brought along. Closest I could find to pie tins. James is on a personal crusade against the Coca Cola that’s singlehandedly giving diabetes to rural Mexico, so I’m cutting all refined sugars from the recipes this year. Pecan is easy since honey subs in fine for Karo syrup, but I’m more dubious about the apple. The jar broke in my pack on the way, and I spend much of the time scooping honey out of the bag I wrapped it in.

“You think you’ll have enough water for me to wash anytime soon?” I ask James as he stumbles in puffing from the stairs.

“Screw you,” he laughs, putting his bottles down. I waggle sticky fingers at him. “How’re the pies going?”

“Fucked if I know. I’m going to have to shave some piloncillo for the topping.”

“Good luck with that,” he says, and heads for more water. Piloncillo is solid molasses, boiled and poured into diamond-hard cones. I picked up ten pounds of it on the corner for just under a dollar. I’m willing to do my Mom’s Dutch apple without the sugar, but I don’t feel like I can get away without crumb topping. When Janessa arrives I get her to promise to do me a favor and then leave her scraping a butter knife against the big brown lump.

Janessa’s a middle-height brunette, at turns mothering and full-on partier, and she’s liable to bite your shoulder in times of high excitement. Peace Corps was her dream, and her husband Trey gamely brought his southern Georgia charm down to Mexico along with her. This past October, though, he got the job he’d been waiting for, inspecting operations and developing best practices for California weed farming outfits, and she’s out here alone until he comes down for Christmas.

James and I head out back to consider Penelope. We’ve got a brining recipe written down, but it’s the container that’s holding us up. The pot we brought her over in is too shallow to submerge her, and Danielle’s plastic washtub is larger than her fridge. We’ve heard you’re supposed to keep the bird cool.

“I murdered her, I didn’t nick the bowel, and I’m sure she’s clean.”

“Been out in the sun for a while though.”

“Yea.”

“Weather kind of let us down.”

“It’s a long way from Michigan.” He looks at Penelope. Turns her from side to side. “Wait,” he says, and runs into the house. He comes back with the crisper drawer from the fridge.

“No fucking way,” I say, but he waves me off, and when he lowers her into the plastic, it looks like she’s striking a pose for my camera. Perfect fit. “Maybe that’s what it’s always been for,” I say as we pour salt brine and a table of Danielle’s precious American molasses in with her.

“Guy who invented the refrigerator wondering all his life why we’re putting vegetables in the turkey drawer.”

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The pies go into the oven and the girls start on dinner. Pastries aside, we’ve fallen further into gender roles out here, some kind of cultural osmosis. We take out the first bottle of wine. After the luxury of daily Safeway runs, it’s a sweet rarity, way outside of our normal price range for bottom shelf tequila. For this weekend, though, we’ve got four bottles and it feels like a bounty. We’ve got no corkscrew, and I paint most of my shirt a deep violet ramming the cork down.

“Hey, I think there’s eggs in the pasta,” says Janessa. Danielle walks over and looks into the pot.

“And weevils. Could have come in the water, too,” she offers. “You know they eat them here. Some kind of diet.” James nods.

“They say it forms some kind of colony inside of you. You know, in your stomach acid.”

“Protein is protein,” Janessa says, and we all gather round to fish the bugs out with a tiny colander.

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Dinner goes well until music starts pouring in the front from the dingy cantina across the way. Banda is hard to listen to in the best of times. Its swaggering imitation of mid-nineties rap values is set to country guitar and a polka bass-line, and when the ridiculous tuba-plus-accordion begins to blare, we shut the door.

Part of Peace Corps, maybe the only part that matters, is opening yourself to your host country and sharing with it in return. But when we get together for American holidays, we guiltily close ourselves off, trying to create a warm little bubble of home. All weekend we’ll leave huapango and ranchero and even Vicente Fernandez to one side for Macklemore and The Shins, Patsy Cline and the Avett Brothers. I’ll try to start in with Christmas, She & Him and Bing Crosby and Vince Guaraldi playing Charlie Brown, but Danielle will nix it.

“Not until Thanksgiving, and that’s not until Thursday.”

Rules are rules, and as long as we’re pretending that this is the States, we’ve got to respect them. Mexico goes from Día de Muertos on the first of November straight into Christmas, and I walked past the fifty foot iron-and-plastic fir tree in my town square on the first of November with a mix of familiarity and deep confusion.

In the morning, we can’t remember how long we ought to roast a turkey, so we take the campo attitude and wing it, packing her sideways into a stew pot and deciding that three hours or so ought to do it. The dial eschews degrees for an inscrutable I to V range, and we figure that somewhere between II and III is a good bet. The bird safely in the oven, James and Janessa head to the terrace for yoga. We’ve all gotten more New Age since joining up, but Danielle and I draw the line at sugarless pies. She and I turn on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” and sing along to ‘Eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.’ We’re together but we’re not together, each of us lost remembering the mothers that first played it for us.

When the chorus comes around, we fall back into the kitchen and yell, ‘Can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in, singing a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walking out? And friends they may think it’s a movement,’ before laughing to each other and sighing.

“Time for tequila?”

“Yea.”

When the cooking gets into full swing, it becomes clear that we’ll have far too much food, each of us trying to make all the tastes of home. I’ve got the two pies and a pseudo-casserole of green beans, bacon, and slivered almonds. Slap Chops absent, only dull knives and patience get them thin enough. Janessa’s making cooked carrots and her grandmother’s Jell-O chutney, its myriad fruits replaced by three sad pears and a cup of dusty craisins. Danielle makes stuffing from Bimbo bread, two steps down in substance from Wonder. The most American ingredient is a family-size box of Kraft Mac & Cheese, scrounged at great cost from the Walmart down in the city. We pour it into a baking pan and crumble stuffing over top in lieu of breadcrumbs. It crisps up under Penelope. All of us have given up on the way we smell, and we pack the mashed potatoes with garlic, the white starches yellowing under the onslaught of cloves. For all that we’ve tried to make things as healthy as we preach, we’ve somehow gone through a good twenty sticks of butter before we’re done.

Dishwashing becomes laborious, one of us having to pour from our bottled reserves while another scrubs. Before long, the tub that collects from the basin is full and Danielle starts grilling us on the state of our bowels.

“Somebody take a dump already. We’ve got to flush with the dishwater so I can keep washing.” I go first, and James turns up the music. Danielle’s bathroom is separated from her kitchen by the thinnest plastic and tin—we’re lucky if only the sound makes it through. Shit-shy in the States, I’m not worried. I think it must be true in every country that the first vanity to die in the Peace Corps dies on the toilet. Training is an endless seminar on amoebas and food poisoning, and few meals went by without our speculating on how soon we’d be seeing what we were eating and how it would look when we did. Unwashed vegetables and home-slaughtered turkey long-eaten by time of publication, it looks like we got out scot free this time.

The weather’s still good once Penelope’s out, so we pull Danielle’s small kitchen table outside. The towns here hug the highways as they skirt round the mountains, and when you head to the back of the house, the ground falls away. It’s a five story drop from the edge of her terrace, pine trees rolling out into woodland and a valley that flows as far as you can see. She’s got the best view in all of Mexico, maybe all of Peace Corps, and we use it as the backdrop for a few Last Supper timer photos before we lose patience and fall on the food.

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It’s an orgy and we make ourselves sick trying to eat our way back home. By the time we make it to the pies, we’re moaning and cussing with each bite. Only the firmest pain signals from our bellies induce us to quit. We have to stop, and when we do, not even the last three bottles of wine and a good deal of tequila can keep us from seeing what we’ve put off with mad cooking and manic conversation. There’s nothing left to hide that it’s Sunday afternoon and Janessa and I will have to be on the bus back to site at six in the morning. We fall into a melancholy silence, collapsing onto blankets in the last of the sunlight and trying to accommodate our swollen stomachs.

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The hills lift the horizon high into the sky, and sunset always comes as a surprise in the Sierra. We were all nodding or napping, and the stars stole out before we knew it, Orion peeking over the hills to our east.

“Do you miss your family?” Janessa asks.

“I dunno. I mean, my folks are in China,” I reply, “So there’s not much of a home for me to go back to for things like this. Plus, you’re married and everything, but for me, every holiday away is a kind of growing-up. Every one a little more adult.”

“You want to be an adult?”

“I don’t feel like one,” I say, but I figure this must be what it’s like for everyone when they’re first out on their own, whether it’s in Mexico or Michigan. Trying to recapture bits of what they’ve left behind.

We stay out until we can’t keep our eyes open, pulling on sweaters and scarves as the wind turns. It rushes around the valley in waves, building to a waterfall roar as it comes to the house and tousles our hair. Dozens of shooting starts streak over us and we put off bedtime, wishing our private wishes.

In the morning, we blow on fingers and chafe our palms together. We pack stuffing and pies into shopping bags and snug them in the spare pockets of our backpacks. We turn and hug Danielle at the door.

“You’ll have to make that apple pie again for Christmas,” she says as we pull away from each other.

And she’s right. I will.

Monitoring, Reporting, and Devaluation

I want to talk about the Peace Corps, my little part of it, as I see it now.

To talk about now, though, I’ve got to go back and talk about then. The early sixties were (I understand) heady days for us as a country. We’d concluded what seemed like a successful police action in Korea under the auspices of the then-still-exciting United Nations, we were following our most charismatic president, and fears about the Soviet Union had (somewhat) diminished with his handling of the missile crisis and Khrushchev’s rejection of Stalin and Stalinism. We hadn’t yet come to know the horrors of Vietnam or the culture wars what would tear us apart.

We were on top of the world, and in that moment we still thought that we could save it. It speaks to the spirit of the times that an offhand remark on the steps of the Michigan Union during the campaign generated enough public excitement for Kennedy to create an entirely new and radical kind of development and diplomacy organization. The idea behind the Peace Corps is still appealing—we send bright, young all-American college graduates off to the poorest corners of the world and let them use their new-gotten know-how to improve lives abroad in the same way they’d soon be improving them at home. It’s a kind of beautiful optimism, a faith in forward progress that hadn’t yet been stymied by stagflation and internal surveillance and decades of proxy wars.

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To Kill a Mindset

I wrote awhile ago that Peace Corps volunteers make good bigots. Generally, statistically, we’re privileged white people traveling to all the poorer, browner, and yellower parts of the world. We arrive in classes of universal inexperience that serve as crucibles for culture shock and adjustment frustration. All of our angst and anxiety bouncing off each other in conversation after conversation. I want to get into that bigotry. My bigotry.

Hey there

Hey there

I’ve brought up volunteer chats as a mechanic twice now, and I’d like to explain. Imagine that you’re at a big weekend party with all of your friends, and after two solid days of debauch, one of your hosts sits down to tally what everyone has contributed so you can split costs and share the burden. It’s going okay, but then one of your friends starts complaining about how little she drank compared with everyone else and makes a scene over her bare-minimum contribution while the rest are happy to round up and pay it forward. You think about it for a couple of minutes after it happens and then you let it go.

Now imagine you’re one of the last to leave. It’s you, your hosts, and a couple of other stragglers. One of them says, “Can you believe how cheap whatshername was just now?”

“Yea, what an asshole,” another friend chimes in, and suddenly you’re thinking yea, she was an asshole, and you spend the next ten minutes consumed by breaking down how and why and what a total culera that chick was. Prejudice grows between us like this, through nasty little circlejerks when we aren’t paying enough attention to what we’re doing to each other.

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The Grass Roots

Early evening here and it’s been overcast all day. That doesn’t save us from the noon swelter, but it does mean that now, around seven, there’s a breeze and it’s blessedly cool. After all the quick nightfalls of the winter and the blackout precautions we have to take to keep our house from filling with bugs, the days are starting to feel miraculously long.

Mmmm

Mmmm

It’s depressing that we’ve almost hit the apex already—I’ve spent some time in Australia and I can tell you I wouldn’t mind seeing an eleven o’clock sunset again.

I want to talk a bit about movements, how they start and grow and how I’m witnessing one firsthand here in Mexico.

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Cockfight

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We walk in with different attitudes. Trey is eager, I dubious, Alejandro, alert. He’s pretending to be an old hand. Trey has been talking about cockfights for months, and we’ve strolled in on his pesos—I planned not to have enough for this. We are tight from earlier and hoping not to sober up fast. We aren’t sure we have the money to stay this way, and at one-thirty in the morning, tomorrow’s workday looms. I spent last night with Lupe, so it’s two vigils in a row, though the focus is more on death tonight than what comes after.

Alejandro tells us we’ve missed the first set of fights and we keep our seats through a half-hour of arcane Mexican lotteries. Trey’s itching to put money on a bird, but he’ll wait until the raffle girls have finished. I expected a farmyard smell but it’s the same here as outside, the air untainted but as wet and heavy. The arena is tiered and while there are chairs around the broad flat top, most are sitting like us on the concentric concrete ledges that circle down to the pit in the center.

A pudgy campesino looks to be the referee, pacing in a sweatstained button-down open to his navel, stopwatch hanging like a narco medallion. Serious characters make the innermost ring, elbows propped on the retaining wall. They whisper to each other in confidence under black felt Stetsons wearing pressed jeans and entertaining girls who are either too old or much too young to be out this time of night. When the birds come out, they are thinner than I expected, looking more like young chickens than the roosters who strut through town. Svelte their whole length, most of their combs and dangling flesh has been shaved off.

The first is in the arms of a thin young man from the countryside, his plaid shirt tucked into too-light jeans that climb towards his armpits. It seems like his only bird, and he cradles it, talking and combing its feathers with one hand. The other owner’s is white, one of what seems like a big stable. The man looks drunk and his guayabera is open and discolored. A third man brings his contender into the ring to rile up the fighters. He shoves his bird at them, and then the owners hold them by the tail while they charge each other in place, feathered cartoon bulls.

The man and the kid turn and start to prep the birds. A slow process. Bandage from the lockbox, trim and cut, first one half on the leg and then the other. Their assistants open the knifeboxes and both owners consider one before taking another. They press them to the birds’ legs and start to bind them on with colored floss, green for the kid’s corner, red for the man’s. What the fuck, says Trey. They’re putting razors on ‘em. I shrug and nod.

It’s a bloodsport man. I expected some blood. Alejandro adds that without the knives, the fights would be too long.

Se necesitan las navajas.

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